We have begun a series of sermons on the doubts that rise in Christian hearts and minds that unsettle their faith in God, in Christ, and in the authority of the Bible. As we said last time, some of the causes of such doubts are doctrinal – certain teachings of the Bible – and others are experiential, events in their lives or in the world that cause them to suspect that in one respect or another the Bible is not true or God cannot be trusted or his character is not as it is represented to be in the Word of God. It is worth our noting at the outset that such doubts, whether provoked by doctrine or experience, invariably result from the harder things, from the sterner doctrines and the more severe experiences of life. One rarely is cast into uncertainty about the Christian faith because it teaches that God is love or that we are to love others or because we happen to find ourselves enjoying great happiness or prosperity. Doubts arise when we are faced with teaching that it is easy to wish were not true and with experiences that are painful. That is a very good thing to remember when we begin to think through our doubts. It is a universal fact of history and experience that human beings of all stripes find it difficult to believe things they wish were not true or to come to terms with life’s disappointments. That we wish something were not so, however, hardly makes that something untrue – indeed, it may very well be further evidence that it is so – and the fact that we would rather that something else had happened hardly means that we ought to revise our philosophy of life. People have an inflated view of their own importance – we all do and we all know that, hard as it is to admit – and people are hard put to accept hard truths. These are facts we ought all to remember when dealing with our doubts. If Christianity would simply get rid of a few unpopular tenets everyone would embrace it, but, then, it wouldn’t be Christianity and wouldn’t be worth believing. Both truth and life have a hard edge; who can deny it? We’ll have much more to say about this as we proceed through this series, but it is a point worth making as we begin. Our desires are a poor basis upon which to build a worldview. Truth and reality are hard as stone and we can count on there being aspects of both that are painful to encounter.
I know this sounds terribly old-fashioned, but I make no apology for saying – what, after all, everyone believes when thinking about what others should think – that what we are after is the truth, not what makes us feel better about ourselves or the world. If our philosophy of life is in fact a falsehood, if it is detached from reality, no honest person should want to believe it, even if it makes us feel better about ourselves and the world. If, on the other hand, our philosophy of life is true, if it corresponds to reality, if it describes the world and human life as it actually is, no honest man or woman should reject it even if it makes us feel worse about ourselves and the world.
In either case, whether the problem is with Christian doctrine or the Christian’s experience of life, the problem is that in that moment the Christian finds his or her faith to be at odds with what he or she believes either is the case in the world or ought to be the case. In either instance, their confidence in God, as he is revealed in the Bible, or their confidence in the Bible as the source of truth about human life is shaken and a struggle of conscience ensues, one that can sometimes disturb a Christian life for months or years.
We begin our consideration of the causes of such doubt and shaken faith with perhaps the most controversial of all the teachings of the Word of God, that of the eternal judgment of the unbelieving and the wicked.
It is a difficult subject and I’m hard pressed to think that any serious and thoughtful Christian would not have felt, at one time or another, a shudder of doubt passing through him or her, at what he reads about divine judgment in the Bible.
From time to time any reader of the Bible must come across statements such as these:
“…if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” [Mark 9:47-48]
“I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom [He’s speaking of the unbelieving Jews in his day] will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” [Matt. 8:11-12] That description of hell, by the way, a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” occurs five more times in the Gospel of Matthew.
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” [Matt. 10:28]
“…many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” [Dan. 12:2]
“It will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you.” [Matt. 11:23]
“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” [John 5:28-29]
“But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” [Rom. 2:5]
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” [2 Cor. 5:10]
“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.” [Rev. 20:11-12]
“…and the devil,..was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. … And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” [Rev. 20:10, 15]
Everyone knows that this is part of the Christian faith and the biblical message. Almost anyone, no matter how much or little he or she knows about the Christian faith, realizes at some level that we Christians regard Jesus Christ as our savior, and that what he saves us from is hell, from punishment in the world to come. And certainly any Christian learns soon enough that many people find that belief hard to stomach. I know people and, of course, have heard or read of many others who have said, “I could never believe in a God who sent people to hell.” I heard of a young woman, who had herself been raised in a devout Christian family, with earnest Christian siblings, who has said precisely that: “I can’t believe in a God who would send people to hell.” And we ourselves have sometimes struggled to understand how it could possibly be necessary, even for a God of the purest justice, to punish the wicked forever. It is important for us to realize that to believe in hell is a greater struggle for us today than it has been for Christians in other times and other places.
In our effete, antinomian, comfortable, and self-excusing culture, this is a particularly hard doctrine to swallow and so it should come as no surprise that it is proving a barrier to belief and a cause of Christian doubt especially in our time. The fact that I know of Christians, perhaps you do too, who have given up the faith at least in part, at least according to them, because they can no longer believe in hell, is some evidence of how commonplace the problem of believing in hell has become in our time. I remember distinctly being told by a former minister of this presbytery that he no longer believed in divine judgment. I’m sure that has always been a problem to some degree, but it is a particular cause of consternation, confusion, and doubt in our day and, especially, in the western world. I doubt that Christians in the Sudan or even China struggle nearly so much with doubts about hell as do comfortable and well-to-do Christians in the United States. But if a significant number of erstwhile Christians have, in our time, given up the faith because of the Bible’s teaching about hell, you can be sure that other Christians are struggling in their faith for the same reason. Why especially now?
We live today in a thoroughly antinomian culture. We do not live in a legalistic culture. Ours is not a culture that takes the next world seriously and so is concerned to prepare itself in some way, according to some salvific theory, for life after death. Far from it. Your neighbors are not counting up their merits and demerits hoping that the former outweigh the latter. They are not losing sleep night after night worrying about what will happen to them when they die. People in a permissive and self-excusing culture such as ours rarely give the judgment of their lives much thought and virtually never give it serious thought. They don’t stay up night worrying about whether God judges them to have done more good than bad. To the extent they think about God at all, in this culture it is entirely natural for them to think of God as having the same mind they do. They don’t care deeply about the relative good or bad they do and don’t think God will either. He might be disappointed in some of the things they say and do, but he won’t make an issue of it. It is self-evident to them that God wouldn’t be into that kind of discrimination, because discrimination is a bad thing. All Americans know that. Everyone is the same and is to be treated the same and, after all, none of us is perfect. Besides, we have been taught that human beings are basically good and that their bad behavior is the result of social conditioning, so how can we be held responsible for things over which we had no control?
It may be true that we hold these views very inconsistently and are daily violating them in our own judgment of others, but this is the theology – such as it is – of our culture and it exercises a tremendous influence over how people think, what they are prepared to believe, and even what they can understand. The sexual revolution is one obvious practical consequence of this theology. It is a truth so obvious to people of the modern west that God would never require them to deny their sexual desires simply because they aren’t married or because they happen to be attracted to people of the same sex, so obvious I say as to need no demonstration. The fact that people generally have not believed that to be true for most of human history and in many cultures still today is utterly irrelevant to the modern American. They cannot conceive of a world in which they would be required to be chaste in thought, speech, and behavior upon pain of punishment.
So you and I live in a time and place, we exist in an intellectual culture utterly uncongenial to the doctrine of divine judgment. And the church has not helped its people as much as it should have and might have done. In an antinomian and self-congratulatory and self-excusing culture such as the modern West the church is very likely to emphasize those parts of their faith that are most acceptable to our culture.We may certainly intend to be faithful Christians, we desire and intend to be loyal to the Word of God, but we find it very easy to talk mostly about things that are not difficult for this culture to believe or to accept.This is what the church has always done: allowed her message and her life to be shaped and often misshaped by the culture around her. So, in a culture such as ours, we find it very easy to talk about God’s grace and forgiveness, for we are Christians after all, and grace and forgiveness are fundamental to our faith and our message.
But we find it more difficult to emphasize the Bible’s teaching about the necessity of obedience or the punishment that God visits upon the disobedient, or the distinction he makes between believers and unbelievers in the Day of Judgment. Let me bring this home. None of our Presbyterian Church in America pastors is a theological antinomian. They all believe, as our Confession of Faith requires them to believe, that Christians are obliged to keep God’s commandments, that obedience has much to do with how God measures and judges even a Christian’s life, and that how we have lived our lives will determine, even for a Christian, the measure of gain or loss meted out at the Last Judgment. But, no matter what they confess as Bible-believing Presbyterians, the culture still makes most of us uncomfortable preaching that biblical emphasis on obedience or that divine discrimination in judgment based on a person’s, even a believer’s, measure of obedience or disobedience. Many preachers, nowadays even Reformed and Presbyterian preachers are very less likely, for example, to preach a text like 1 Corinthians 3 about a Christian being barely saved because of the poor quality of his Christian service and of much of his fruit being burned up and lost. And decades may pass before many of our congregations ever hear a sermon on Revelation 2:23, the Lord’s remark to the seven churches:
“I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.”
They don’t deny that truth, but they don’t preach it very often either or with much emphasis; at least not nearly as often or emphatically as it is found in the Bible. Well, for the same reason, they don’t talk much about hell. Fundamental to our entire faith, essential to the gospel message as hell is, as often as it appears in the preaching of Jesus and of the apostles, because it is a subject so uncongenial to people today, a message they do not want to hear about or think about, it is preached less often than it used to be and much less explicitly. And ministers know that. It may be that the entire edifice of the Christian faith absolutely depends upon the reality of divine judgment – else why do we need a savior? – but still the subject is rarely discussed or taught with careful attention to the reasons why people find this teaching difficult or offensive. And, as a result, a Christian struggling with doubts about hell does not receive the help he or she needs.
If you were to ask some of our ministers why they hardly ever talk about hell or preach the biblical texts that describe it, some would perhaps deny that they or ignoring the subject. They would claim that they did in fact preach divine judgment in its biblical proportion. They might themselves be genuinely unaware of how absent some of the Bible’s central themes actually are from their sermons. The more reflective and confident among them might say that they have chosen to emphasize the things they believe their congregation needs to hear or that they purposely design their sermons not to give unnecessary offense to unbelievers present. We can understand all of that and in some respects agree with it, but we can also see how easily it plays into the hands of the dominant culture and how little it helps Christians to maintain an intelligent, robust faith in the Bible’s teaching about divine judgment. No preacher is going to say he allows the unbelieving world around him to determine what in the Bible he is willing to preach, but that the culture does exercise a powerful influence on what he says and how he says it only a fool would deny. Preachers must fight against the dulling weight of a culture with might and main and preach the Bible comprehensively, constantly praying that they will impart its teaching, all its teaching, to their congregations in a biblical way and a biblical proportion.
And this is especially so in regard to the Bible’s teaching about hell and that for several distinct reasons.
- In my view, any doctrine that is obviously, immediately, and profoundly offensive to our culture needs careful, comprehensive, sophisticated, and repeated treatment. It needs careful definition, it needs a robust but intelligent defense, and it needs to be fully integrated into the rest of the Bible’s teaching about God, man, and salvation. Preachers should have no difficulty predicting what doctrines of our Christian faith are going to provoke the most visceral objections and so, for the same reason, what biblical teachings are likely to produce the greatest uncertainty or doubt in the minds of Christians. If hell is a problem, a serious problem for thinking Christians, if we know people who have given up the faith because they couldn’t believe in a God who would send people to hell, Christian people are going to be shaken by the doctrine as well. Surely that is reason enough for Christian ministers to spend plenty of time working through this teaching for the sake of the faith and understanding of their people.
- More than that, this time and attention is particularly important with the doctrine of hell because it is a biblical teaching that has far too often been badly misrepresented in Christian teaching and badly misunderstood by Christian preachers and Christian people alike. Hell, even rightly understood, understood with biblical sophistication, is problem enough; but the caricature of hell entertained by so many people, including people who ought to know better, makes the problem far worse. In the culture one never finds – I mean never – finds hell represented accurately and with moral seriousness. The average American’s view of hell is not far from Gary Larson’s Far Side panels that are funny precisely because they appeal to the caricature of hell entertained by almost everyone, a caricature that is nothing less than a mockery of the Bible’s actual teaching. Think, for example, of the sophisticated, urbane symphony conductor, a maestro who’s condemned to be placed in a room full of accordion players. Even in the church, only rarely are people given a serious explanation of the biblical conception of divine judgment, an explanation that does full justice to the highly image-laden presentation of hell in Holy Scripture or to the Bible’s multi-layered description of hell. I am quite sure that many doubts about the biblical teaching on hell that Christians have struggled with are, at least in large part, the result of a failure to understand what the Bible is actually saying, and even more importantly, what it is not saying about hell. I wonder how many of you would know to say, in talking about hell with someone else, what even such a stalwart Calvinist theologian as the 17th century theologian Francis Turretin knew to say about the punishments of hell: “…what [hell] is or in what infernal punishments consists, it is not easy to define.” [Institutes, iii, 605] Do you understand what he said? We decry hell, we say we cannot believe in a God who would send people to hell, but, taking all the data of the Bible together, says Turretin, no one really can say what hell is like, how people actually suffer there. Everyone imagines that he or she knows, which is why hell is such a problem of faith, but we do not know, no one knows! How often is that fact explained to us? There is a great deal to explain about the Bible’s depiction of hell; a great deal of careful explanation is required.
- And, finally, the doctrine of hell needs comprehensive and emphatic teaching because it is a doctrine about which even convinced evangelicals, committed to the inerrancy and the absolute authority of the Bible, do not agree. Indeed, one reason, among several others, I decided to preach this series of sermons on a Christian’s doubts was the impression made on me in reading the Anglican evangelical John Wenham’s autobiography, Facing Hell. John Wenham was a fine Christian man, a faithful husband and father, an effective and much loved teacher of the Bible, the author of a number of well-regarded books, a stalwart defender of the inerrancy and authority of the Bible, of penal, substitutionary atonement (i.e. the cross as vicarious punishment for our sins), and of the gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. He wrote an introductory grammar, The Elements of New Testament Greek, which was perhaps the most widely used text by English-speaking seminarians for a generation. Wenham belonged to that group of like-minded Anglican evangelicals who gave new impetus to evangelical conviction and teaching in the Church of England in the 1960s and 70s. Think of J.I. Packer, John Stott, Philip Hughes (who taught for years at Westminster Theological Seminary) when you think of John Wenham. Those men were friends and sometime colleagues. But Wenham did not believe in hell and his disbelief in the doctrine plays a prominent role in his autobiography. Indeed, the “Preface” to Facing Hell begins this way; that is the very first words of the book are these:
“I believe that endless torment is a hideous and unscriptural doctrine which has been a terrible burden on the mind of the church for many centuries and a terrible blot on her presentation of the gospel. I should indeed be happy if, before I die, I could help in sweeping it away.”
And, as you may know he was not alone. After his teaching career at Westminster was over, Philip Hughes published his book The True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ, in which he likewise denied eternal punishment. In his later years, to the consternation of a great many evangelicals, John Stott did the same. “Emotionally,” Stott said, “I find the concept intolerable.” In fairness, he was careful to say that in light of the fact that believing biblical scholarship had throughout Christian history almost universally taught that the Bible was clear in its assertion of eternal punishment he maintained his skepticism tentatively. Still, a man of Stott’s reputation and authority coming out against hell and, instead, for the annihilation of the wicked or for the doctrine often referred to as “conditional immortality” was news! And not just Wenham, Hughes, and Stott. F.F. Bruce, perhaps the most influential New Testament scholar of the previous generation, who was an evangelical, Bible-believing man, claimed to be agnostic on eternal punishment. Michael Green, the influential evangelical Anglican writer, preacher, and evangelist, author of the classic work, Evangelism in the Early Church, is also an advocate of conditional immortality. These are not men whose judgments should be easily dismissed. All of these men were committed Christians, defenders of the authority of the Bible, earnest pleaders with men to believe in Jesus Christ that they might be saved.
And what is true of all of them is that they find the historic Christian doctrine of hell, of eternal punishment, revolting. They recoil from it as unworthy of God and contrary to Christian instincts. Their objections, in other words, are visceral, emotional, and ethical, just as a great many unbelievers would describe their objections to the Christian doctrine of hell. No wonder there are Christians who struggle with this doctrine, no wonder there are doubts in a Christian’s mind about eternal punishment, if even evangelical scholars of impeccable credentials find that doctrine impossible to believe. Of course these men go on to argue that the church’s historic understanding of hell as eternal punishment is not, in fact, taught in the Bible and that the doctrine of hell that Christians have been taught, that is enshrined in the Christian creeds and confessions, and that has been the subject of two-thousand years of Christian preaching is, in fact, a gigantic mistake of biblical interpretation. Next time we will consider their argument and the biblical data themselves.
Now these men certainly believe in life after death, they believe in an eternal heaven, they even believe in the punishment of the wicked, but they do not believe in eternal punishment; they do not believe, in other words, in hell as Christians have long believed it to be: the eternal, conscious experience of punishment, both deprivation of the good and the infliction of positive sorrow, pain, and a sense of loss.
Of course there are some in our time, more perhaps than at any other time in the history of the western world, who do not believe in any form of life after death. Famous among them was the British philosopher Bertrand Russell. In Russell’s view science had dispelled the religious myths of heaven and hell.
“I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young, and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is none the less true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.”
Few people actually agree with those last sentiments, in actual fact, but what else could Russell say? Indeed, recognizing where the world’s concept of hell came from, Russell considered the teaching of hell the one blot on Christ’s moral character. “I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment” he said. [Why I Am Not a Christian, 47, 22-23]
Probably more people accept that there is such a place as heaven but imagine that hell, if such a place and condition exists, is populated by only a select few, the Adolf Hitlers of this world. There is precious little evidence that most people think much at all about the afterlife, but, when they do, they glibly assume that it will go well with them and their loved ones.
But the fact that so many in our culture think in one of these ways or the other, the fact that there is virtually no public conversation about divine judgment, no thoughtful interaction with the idea – nothing like, for example, Abraham Lincoln’s famous allusion to it in his Second Inaugural Address –, the fact that most Americans never hear anyone talking seriously about divine judgment, means that the intellectual environment in which Christians live, the very air they breathe, makes it still harder for Christians to take the doctrine seriously, to speak up on its behalf, or to resist the temptation either to ignore the doctrine or to begin to question it. And, of course, it raises the question – the very question they do not want raised – whether those evangelical scholars who have recently questioned the doctrine of eternal punishment, may have been influenced more by their culture than they knew.
In any case, there are reasons why Christians need to think about hell, think carefully about what the Bible actually says about hell – about what its way of describing hell means – and for what reasons the Bible teaches us that there is such a place and a condition and an existence in the world to come. It is a tragedy when any Christian refuses to believe what the Bible teaches, when his or her faith begins to disintegrate because it is offended by something found in the Word of God. But it is a greater tragedy if that doubt is provoked and nurtured by a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Bible actually teaches. Does the Bible actually teach that hell is torture, torture as we understand the term, an unending, eternal agony of pain and terror? Of course not. But you wouldn’t know that listening to most voices contributing to the debate, on either side!
That hell is to be avoided at all costs, the Bible clearly teaches. Precisely why that is so, we will undertake to explain in a future sermon. But let’s all agree not to doubt a biblical teaching until we are sure we know what that teaching actually is!